Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Lions, if a dose of it had just snuck in, have been shocked out of any complacency on their continuing – phew, just – journey toward the Super Rugby title.
Or put it this way: what is the likelihood of the Johannesburg franchise being as ragged, flustered and imprecise in the home semi-final against the Hurricanes next weekend as they were during the course of the dramatic, late-secured quarter-final triumph over the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday?
Probably not a very good one, and that is something to bank in their favour despite the ‘Canes naturally shaping up as considerably more formidable on paper than the brave-hearts from Durban who so nearly registered an almighty upset before surrendering 23-21.
With the Stormers coming up short at the quarter-final phase for the third time in as many years (and all at Newlands) by losing 17-11 to the Chiefs in a tight but generally disappointing tussle, justice has really prevailed for the last four, which will also see the Crusaders now host the Waikato outfit next Saturday in the other semi.
It means the four teams with the most log points to show from the increasingly controversial ordinary-season format have booked their tickets for next weekend, and this is a development to please the purists, regardless of nationality.
Also just about reflecting the balance of power this year is that the semis see three New Zealand teams and one SA outfit in the remaining mix.
Whilst it will be little consolation to the Sharks, who may also feel referee Marius van der Westhuizen made some brutal calls against them at important times, plenty of South Africans from all the other regions will have breathed a sigh of relief that the Lions advance – they always did shape as the side from our shores in with best stab, and then some, at the trophy.
It would have required a deep glug from the hip flask beforehand to submit with any fortitude that the Stormers, had they flown to sadly flood-ravaged Christchurch, or Sharks, by returning to the Cake Tin horror of their 41-0 knockout thumping from the Hurricanes last season, might have gone on to the overall glory instead.
As it is, bookies may be slightly lengthening already the odds on the Lions going one better than their loss in the final of 2016, but the fact remains that Johan Ackermann’s charges are best equipped from our parts to bring the title to a South African home for the first time since the Bulls’ last triumph in 2010.
The very fact that they survived the Sharks’ typically physical, bump-‘em-off-their-stride blitzkrieg is a testament to their pedigree, for all the flaws on display.
That they work for each other, even in the depths of adversity, was also reflected in the way Springbok wing Ruan Combrinck fearlessly, determinedly stepped up to bang over the decisive penalty goal from well over 50 metres in the 77th minute to thwart the underdogs’ dreams.
His vital cameo came with flyhalf and regular goal-kicker Elton Jantjies already sitting a little forlornly on the bench, following a rather wretched personal showing marked by mistakes in various respects – including unusually wayward kicking off the tee that did, remember, go quite some way to keeping the visitors interested right to the last whistle.
Jantjies, an enigmatic fellow for some years in spite of his considerable gifts, faces a significant follow-up outing against the ‘Canes, as anything like a repeat of his jitters evidenced against the Sharks will get a whole lot of critics carping anew that he doesn’t quite cut it when the heat is turned up to most challenging levels.
Certainly the renewed strides he made at Test level against France in June will be quickly forgotten by the harsher of onlookers if he bombs out against next weekend, although considering how Ellis Park and the Lions themselves are such treasured entities to him, it will also not surprise his army of devotees if he has a cracking outing against the Wellington visitors and defending champions.
With due respect to stand-in skipper Jaco Kriel, the Lions do lack some elements of adhesiveness and tactical clarity when Warren Whiteley is confined to “civvies” at pitch-side – where he was on Saturday and will be for whatever’s left of their 2017 adventure.
But the spirit that runs deep in their dressing room is still there, and not something to be under-estimated in the lead-up as next opponents the ‘Canes prepare for an arduous trip through time zones to the unforgiving Highveld.
Not that the NZ side will be overawed in the slightest by jetting into the Big Smoke: last season they handed the otherwise consistently winning, polished Lions a 50-17 mid-campaign humbling in the very Jo’burg, before repeating the job 20-3 in the Wellington showpiece.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
Cape Town – Will South Africa’s very own Akani Simbine break the eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt‘s winning streak at the IAAF Diamond League in Monaco?
Simbine will be running alongside the Jamaican superstar in the 100m event in Monaco on Friday (20:00 SA time).
Bolt has won 15 straight finals, with his last defeat being in Rome on June 6, 2013.
He has clocked sub-10sec times on 52 occasions – heats included.
A 53rd sub-10sec is something Bolt, with a season’s best of 10.03, has said he is shooting for here.
In the build-up to Monaco, Bolt is favourite to win, however with a season’s best of 10.03 – Bolt is the second slowest in the field in terms of 2017 bests.
Simbine on the other hand has had a stellar year, he became the first South African to win a Diamond League 100m race in Doha in May.
The 23-year-old powered home in a time of 9.99 to stun America’s Justin Gatlin.
He also has the fastest season time leading up to the 100m in Monaco with a time of 9.92.
Other South Africans in Monaco include Wayde van Niekerk, who stormed to victory in Lausanne earlier this month with the third fastest time of his career (43.62), following on from personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m in June.
Van Niekerk will be seeking his 20th sub-45 seconds in the 400m, however Botswana’s Isaac Makwala is hot on his trail with a season best time of 43.92.
“A sub-43 seconds (in the) 400m is definitely something I am aiming for, of course,” Van Niekerk told reporters, as quoted by IAAF.
“I came so close with 43.03. I always want to improve.”
All these preparations lead up to the IAAF World Championships taking place in London from August 4-13.
Paces, stats and pre-competition hair braiding.
— IAAF (@iaaforg) July 21, 2017
Cape Town – Fullback SP Marais and flank Rynhardt Elstadt return for the Stormers’ Super Rugby quarter-final against the Chiefs at Newlands on Saturday.
The experienced duo return from injury in the only two changes to the Stormers’ starting line-up for the playoff match, which kicks off at 17:00 on Saturday.
In the only change to the backline, Marais returns from a knee injury and starts at fullback, with Dillyn Leyds moving to the wing and Seabelo Senatla set to provide impact off the bench.
Elstadt was a late withdrawal last week due to a wrist injury, but is fit to take his place on the side of the scrum for the quarter-final, with Sikhumbuzo Notshe among the replacements.
There are just two other changes to the match-day squad, with fit-again props Oli Kebble and Wilco Louw both included on the replacements bench.
Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck said that his team is looking forward to playing in front of the Newlands faithful.
“The players and management have put in a lot of hard work and in preparation for this game,” said Fleck.
“It was a cracker of a game when we played the Chiefs at Newlands earlier in the season and we are looking forward to another one.”
15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Substitutes: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Seabelo Senatla, 23 Juan de Jongh
Pretoria – The Blue Bulls have regrouped ahead of their opening Currie Cup match against Griquas in Kimberley on Saturday.
The squad will be without Currie Cup captain Ruan Steenkamp who has a hamstring niggle following the Bulls’ Super Rugby match against the Stormers.
The injury is however not serious and won’t keep the flanker sidelined for an extended period.
Meanwhile, centre Dries Swanepoel has not yet recovered from a quad contusion sustained in the Super Sport Rugby Challenge semi-final against Western Province two weeks ago and will not be available for selection this weekend.
Wing Jamba Ulengo has started selected training sessions but will also not be available for selection this weekend.
Nottingham – South Africa captain Faf du Plessis said his side had gone back to basics in a commanding 340-run win over England in the second Test at Trent Bridge on Monday.
Victory saw the Proteas bounce back in style after they suffered a 211-run defeat in the first of a four-match series at Lord’s — a fixture du Plessis missed following the birth of his first child.
“We did the basics a lot better and put England under pressure for long periods,” du Plessis told Sky Sports.
“We focused on getting back to things this side does really well,” he added of a South Africa side with a proud away record of just one series loss in their 19 previous Test campaigns on the road.
Du Plessis took the bold decision to bat first after winning the toss at Trent Bridge, a ground known for aiding swing bowlers, and was rewarded with a competitive total of 335 all out.
With South Africa coach Russell Domingo missing this match following the death of his mother and the attack without fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, banned for one game as a result of swearing at England’s Ben Stokes at Lord’s, the Proteas then dismissed England for 205.
Du Plessis’s painstaking 63, demonstrating an ability to graft for runs quite beyond most England batsmen this match, helped South Africa to a second innings total of 343 for nine declared.
That left England needing a mammoth 474 for victory — the most made by any side to win in the fourth innings of a Test is the West Indies’ 418 for seven against Australia at St John’s in 2003.
England, however, collapsed to 133 all out with more than a day to spare on a pitch, which while worn was no ‘minefield’ and with sunny blue skies providing some of the best batting conditions of the Test.
Vernon Philander, the man-of-the-match, led South Africa’s attack with three wickets for 24 runs in 10 overs of accurate fast-medium bowling.
South Africa had collapsed to 119 all out at Lord’s but they were on top at Trent Bridge almost from the start and never let up.
“There were periods in the first Test when we played well but then let England dominate us,” said du Plessis.
“This was an important Test for us.”
The Proteas now have a nine-day break until the start of the third Test at The Oval on July 27, with no tour match in between.
But with several of South Africa’s multi-format players in England since May, du Plessis reckoned a break may be no bad thing.
“A few of the guys have had a long tour — I’ve just had a break so I feel mentally refreshed and strong, but I feel a couple of days off will give the guys a chance to relax and get away and in a week’s time come back with the same intensity,” he said.
For England this reverse again raised questions about their fallible top three, a problem for them while they lost eight Tests last year.
Keaton Jennings and current number three Gary Ballance, a longstanding team-mate of Root at Yorkshire, have made just 44 and 85 runs respectively in four innings during the series so far.
“No, I don’t think it (the top three) is a concern,” insisted number four Root.
“They just need some runs and to spend some time out in the middle.
“Credit has to go to South Africa, who played very well over the course of the game, but we’ve got to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he added.
Meanwhile England coach Trevor Bayliss was adamant none of the side were trying to hide from the scale of this defeat.
“The boys are fairly honest in the changing room and realise they have had a shocker,” the Australian said.
Cape Town – The South African youth team closed out their campaign in fine style on Sunday, bagging three more medals on the final day of the IAAF World U18 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya.
The squad achieved the nation’s best ever medal haul at a major global athletics championship, earning 11 podium places to finish top of the table. They will return home with five gold, three silver and three bronze.
In the Boys 200m final, Retshidisitswe Mlenga (21.03) and Tshenolo Lemao (21.12) charged to another one-two finish, swapping places after they had also earned gold and silver in the 100m contest earlier in the week.
“I came in very focussed, having made a mistake in the 100m final, which is my favourite race,” Mlenga said. “I followed my coach’s instructions and I’m very happy to have won a gold medal.”
Lemao was also pleased with his performance, despite playing second fiddle to his compatriot over the half-lap distance.
“I am in good form and I went into the race knowing that,” he said. “I am happy we took both gold and silver again.”
In the last event of the five-day championships, the SA Mixed 4x400m Relay Team scooped the bronze medal, with Mlenga, Gontse Morake, and 400m Hurdles champions Soks Zazini and Zeney van der Walt completing the race in 3:24.45.
In other disciplines, Valco van Wyk finished fifth in the Boys Pole Vault final after clearing 4.55m, Robert de Villiers ended 11th in the Boys 2 000m Steeplechase in 6:05.23 and Jana van Schalkwyk was 12th in the Girls Javelin Throw with a best attempt of 47.64m.
“What we have achieved is beyond expression. We are very much excited with what our youth team has achieved,” said Athletics South Africa president Aleck Skhosana. ”It’s not every day you top the world.
“We are world champions and if feels to be perched at the top. We would like to get used to this going forward.
“SA coaches are climbing the ladder and proving to the world nothing is impossible. Well done to all athletes and the rest of the support team who work behind the scenes.”
Silverstone – Lewis Hamilton stormed to the 67th pole position of his career after a dazzling performance during qualifying on Saturday for the British Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver finished 0.547sec clear of Kimi Raikkonen with Ferrari team-mate and championship leader Sebastian Vettel set to start third in Sunday’s race at Silverstone.
Hamilton closed to within one of Michael Schumacher’s record of 68 poles.
Pretoria – Bulls coach Nollis Marais acknowledges that his side has let down the Loftus Versfeld faithful this Super Rugby season.
The Bulls go into their final match of the year against the Stormers at Loftus on Saturday having lost 10 of their 14 matches under Marais, including defeats to the Sunwolves and Kings.
It has been a season to forget for the champions of 2007, 2008 and 2010 and it ultimately cost Marais his job.
While he will be staying on at the union and will serve as the Blue Bulls’ Currie Cup coach, Marais has lost his Super Rugby spot to the incoming John Mitchell.
Speaking at Loftus on Thursday after his team announcement, Marais gave some insight into whatb he had endured this season.
“Obviously there is change coming, but we’ve let the fans down which is not nice. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world,” he said.
“For me personally, I learnt a lot from on and off the field issues … especially from off the field issues. That was not something I dealt with in the lower levels.
“There are a lot of things I’ve learnt, but there are a also a lot of positives. There are a lot of youngsters coming through.”
Marais firmly believes that this group of Bulls players will be a highly competitive Super Rugby force in a couple of years, while he says he always knew 2017 would be a tough year because of how young the players were.
All the Bulls can control now is Saturday, and with the Stormers having already qualified for the quarter-finals, there is only pride to play for.
“I think they’re playing good rugby and they’re going to be tough. There are a lot of Boks in that side. They’ve got an excellent pack so if we’re going to match them, we’re going to have to match them up front,” Marais said of the Capetonians.
“But we want to finish off strong and make people proud on Saturday by playing good rugby.”
Kick-off is at 15:05
15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Duncan Mathews, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Nick de Jager, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Shaun Adendorff, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Conraad van Vuurren, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Pierre Schoeman
Substitutes: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 John-Roy Jenkinson, 19 Ruben van Heerden, 20 Ruan Steenkamp, 21 Piet Van Zyl, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Burger Odendaal
15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Substitutes: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Dan Kriel
Nottingham – South Africa fast bowler Morne Morkel is disappointed but philosophical about holding the unwanted record for most Test wickets overturned by no-balls.
Morkel took his tally to 13 in the act of over-stepping when he bowled Ben Stokes in South Africa’s 211-run first Test defeat by England at Lord’s last week.
With the Proteas looking to level the four-match series at 1-1 in the second Test at Nottingham’s Trent Bridge, Morkel said of the Stokes ‘wicket’: “It’s not the first no-ball I’ve bowled in my life.
“It’s not going to end my career,” the 32-year-old also told reporters at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
“It’s 13, yes — world record.
“Somebody needs to hold it. It’s 13 wickets I’d like to have in the bank, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Morkel, a veteran of 75 Tests, added: “It’s part of the game. (England) also bowled a couple of no-balls that could have easily taken a wicket.”
But Dean Elgar, who skippered the Proteas at Lord’s but will hand over to returning captain Faf du Plessis in Nottingham, described some of South Africa’s mistakes, including dropped catches and no-balls, in the first Test as “non-negotiables”.
“It’s not acceptable – it’s a controllable sort of thing,” Morkel said. “I can’t make excuses.
“I need a lot of rhythm, and timing for me is crucial, and I felt the more I bowled in that Test the better my timing was.
“Unfortunately, I did bowl that no-ball, and that’s the sort of thing you don’t want, to give quality players extra lives … you’re going to get punished.
“The only thing I can do is keep on working on getting that foot behind the line.
“I think it’s just a rush of blood to the head, wanting to create something with the older ball.”
Morkel will have additional responsibility after fellow paceman Kagiso Rabada was banned from the second Test as a result of swearing at Stokes at Lord’s.
“Obviously, we’re going to miss ‘KG’ – an ability to bowl long spells fast, with a lot of energy, of course we’re going to miss that,” said Morkel.
“You can’t lie about that … but it’s an opportunity for another guy to step into his place and put his hand up.
“We just need to put whatever happened in the last Test behind us, with KG, with everything, and just focus on Friday.”
Cape Town – Despite falling 20 points behind Sebastian Vettel in the title race, Mercedes are adamant Lewis Hamilton is “still right” in the fight.
Hamilton finished fourth in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix unable to recover any further from a gearbox penalty that left him down in eighth place on the grid.
His main title rival Vettel was second on the day, only losing out to Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
As such the Brit now trails the Ferrari driver by 20 points.
Toto Wolff, though, insists he is not yet out of contention for the title.
“Lewis is still right in the fight,” said the Mercedes motorsport boss.
“It’s not even half time in the championship and there are 275 points still to be won.
“Our target will be to let him fight back in the best possible way in Silverstone.”
The Austrian conceded that Hamilton’s efforts had not been helped of late by Mercedes but believes the triple World Champ’s luck will change.
“In my opinion Lewis had all the bad luck that you can have,” Wolff told reporters.
“We’ve let him down with the headrest, we’ve let him down with the gearbox. Now it’s about time to fight back and hopefully that’s going to happen in Silverstone.
“It’s about time that this changes, the momentum goes in the other direction.”